UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Christine Cunningham believes today’s young learners can become tomorrow’s problem-solvers and engineers, if their natural creativity and curiosity about how things work is nurtured through their K-12 curriculum. She has spent her career developing research-informed ways to make engineering and science more relevant, equitable and understandable to young students, especially in underserved and underrepresented populations.
YES introduces engineering to elementary and middle school youth
Two years ago, Cunningham, professor of practice in Penn State’s College of Education and College of Engineering, used support from her two college homes along with funding from the Penn State Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, to launch Youth Engineering Solutions (YES). Through YES, she and her team have made steady progress in their collective goal of developing curricula to help the next generation of innovators and problem-solvers become excited about learning.
New grants totaling more than $5 million — $4.4 million from MathWorks Inc. and nearly $700,000 from the National Science Foundation — are energizing the YES initiative and infusing it with the resources needed to elevate the work nationally.
Engineers at every age
“Anchoring the YES materials is a belief that all young learners can and should engineer,” Cunningham said. “The program aims to help children of all ages and backgrounds realize that they can creatively solve problems. Our team focuses on how to design curricular materials that create equitable learning environments because we believe that diverse experiences, ideas and approaches strengthen engineering solutions and create more equitable societies.”
Cunningham and her team have proposed a set of design principles for equity for K-12 engineering to guide curricula development with the aim of creating high-quality materials that can scale nationwide. As the team develops curricula that include YES Elementary, YES Middle School and YES Out-of-School, the frameworks are pressure-tested and refined.
“We strive to be thought leaders in K-12 engineering education by developing research-based frameworks that can inform the field,” Cunningham said.
Two decades ago, when Cunningham began her work, elementary engineering did not exist.
“We had to figure out what age-appropriate engineering looked like and how to design lessons that engaged children with engineering practices and concepts,” she said.
Today, in part because of her work, science standards across the country include engineering. But more work remains to ensure that it’s taught well in all classrooms, Cunningham noted.
“There are complex challenges facing society, and there will be more in years to come,” Cunningham said. “We need to educate children to think innovatively, work collaboratively in teams and use evidence to generate new solutions that will shape the world they live in. They may pursue an engineering degree or use this kind of thinking in a different career, but such problem-solving skills are necessary for our society to flourish.”
YES curricula help children to understand how engineering impacts our society and world, according to Cunningham. As they develop familiarity with core concepts and obtain confidence in their abilities, children can broaden their ideas about their possible futures and begin to consider engineering or STEM-related careers. The work complements corporate, government and private entities nationwide that want to nurture the talents of the next generation of creative problem-solvers, scientists, engineers and computer scientists, Cunningham said.
“These organizations recognize the role that high-quality, equity-oriented materials can play in engaging youth in authentic STEM activities that develop STEM identities and mindsets,” she said.
MathWorks Inc. is one such company — they funded the $4.4 million grant supporting the development of YES Middle School. As a leading developer of engineering software, MathWorks keenly understands the possibilities that engineering and computational thinking offer for new designs, according to Cunningham.
Over the next four years, the YES team, in collaboration with MathWorks employees and classroom teachers across the country, will develop, test and release six engineering and computational thinking units for grades six through eight. The MathWorks grant also supports the development of a national network to facilitate national and international dissemination.
“We are excited to partner with the YES team to foster critical problem-solving skills among a diverse student population through computational thinking,” said P.J. Boardman, director of education marketing at MathWorks. “Our software platforms — MATLAB and Simulink — make it easy for scientists and engineers to explore and innovate. Through our collaboration with Penn State, students will be able to apply computational thinking using the same tools as scientists and engineers to discover, challenge conventions and advance our understanding of the world. Recent calls for equality and social reform underscore the importance of diversity in STEM professions and the imperative to inspire students of all genders and races to pursue STEM studies and careers.”
Kim Lawless, dean of the Penn State College of Education, voiced appreciation for YES and its focus on creating more equitable learning environments.
“We know that carefully considering the design of classroom resources can provide learning opportunities for a wider range of students,” she said, noting the importance of focusing on equity and social engagement. “The YES curriculum meets these expectations by providing a new pathway to engage all children in high-quality, authentic engineering and science lessons.”
Beyond the classroom
While efforts to engage children in engineering in school is critical to the YES mission, Cunningham said, the work needs to expand further.
“Data show that out-of-school programs, such as after-school programs and summer camps, reach millions of youth and can influence their knowledge and interests,” Cunningham said. “Because Hispanic and Black youth participate at twice the rate of white youth, out-of-school programs can play important roles in broadening participation in STEM.”
One of the most rapidly growing populations in the United States at the elementary level are English learners, who face the challenge of simultaneously learning English and academic content, such as engineering.
To address this challenge, Cunningham will use an NSF grant worth nearly $700,000 awarded to Penn State to further refine the equity-oriented design principles for out-of-school settings and apply these to the development of YES curricular materials. The YES team will collaborate with Elizabethtown College and the STEM Next Opportunity Fund to envision, test, research and disseminate units designed for after-school programs, especially those that serve English learners, girls, youth of color and youth from low-income communities.
“We have youth situate real-world engineering problems in their local and community contexts,” Cunningham said “Children are encouraged to bring their background and experiences to creatively generate solutions as they work in collaborative teams. We use low-cost, commonly available materials so youth can go home and continue to iterate on their designs.”
According to Cunningham, the youth can demonstrate what they know by physically building the design, while also developing additional language proficiency to communicate their unique solution.
“We want to capture the interest of potential engineers in and out of the classroom and help them deepen their engineering knowledge and skills,” said Justin Schwartz, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean in the College of Engineering. “Diverse experience and approaches help drive innovation, so we want to empower all children to envision themselves as capable problem-solvers and engineers. To do so, we need resources like those created by YES.”
Over the next few years, Cunningham and her team will develop the materials, design professional learning for educators and research the impacts of this work. The lessons will be field tested nationwide prior to a public release on the YES website.
“Once completed, the curricular materials will be freely available for educators to download and use with their students,” Cunningham said. “Our mission is to create world-class curricula and make it available to educators nationally and internationally.”